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Light of the Nations

Epiphany is a season of light. The specific event celebrated during Epiphany is the visit of the magi to the Christ child, but the magi were always understood as the firstfruits of the nations. The magi were drawn to the Christ child by a light in the sky, a star that dimly revealed the greater light that was Christ Himself.

This is precisely the prophecy of Isaiah 60. The light that draws the nations is the light that God is. The glory of Yahweh that rises over Israel is the radiant, luminous cloud that led Israel through the wilderness, the storm cloud that was enthroned above the cherubim in the temple and tabernacle. When that light comes, it shines into Israel.

The light that dwells in Israel will attract the nations of the earth: “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” When the nations come to the light that is in Zion, they will bring the sons and daughters of Israel with them. Yahweh will not leave His people in exile. He will bring them back, and when they come they will be carried along by the kings and nations from the Gentiles.

The nations won’t just bring back Israel’s exiles. They’ll also bring treasures with them. Isaiah envisions a caravan of camels riding over the plain from Midian and Sheba and Kedar and other distant lands. They’ll bring gold and silver, flocks and herds, cedars from Lebanon and cypress, junipers, and other trees. They will bring so much that Zion’s gates will have to remain open all the time, because there will be a continuous procession of goods coming into the city.

The reference to Sheba, and to a caravan of camels, reminds us of the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon. Isaiah envisages a future return of Solomonic glory, when not just Sheba but the kings of the earth made their way to Jerusalem to gain wisdom from Solomon and to view his achievements and treasures. Nearly everything that the nations bring is used for worship in the temple. They bring gold, and gold covered the floor and walls and furniture of the temple. They bring incense, and incense was turned to smoke on the golden altar in the holy place. They bring their flocks and rams, not merely as tribute but so that these animals can be offered as ascension offerings on the altar of Yahweh. The wood they bring provide the lumber needed to rebuild the temple. Isaiah is quite explicit about this. Foreigners will rebuild the walls of Zion, and will glorify, adorn, and rebuild the place of the Lord’s sanctuary (v 13).

There is a direct prophecy of the magi in the passage. Isaiah says that the kings who come to the light of Zion will bring their gold and frankincense with them (v. 6). In bringing these, the magi are acknowledging that Jesus is the true temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. The star leads them to the Christ; the star leads them to the place of God’s habitation on earth.

Isaiah promises Israel that the kings of the nations will become servants of Yahweh and of Israel. They will come to offer priestly service to the priestly nation (v. 10). Kings will become the nursemaids to the people of God (v. 16). Israel inherited a land flowing with milk and honey; now, kings will humble themselves to supply what the land once supplied.

Those who refuse will suffer ruin. Once the Gentiles despised and abused the people of Israel. Once the nations were instruments of the Lord’s wrath. But now the Lord is going to make them bow before His people (v. 14). They will do homage to the people of God and will acknowledge that Jerusalem and Zion are the “city of Yahweh’ and the Zion of the Holy One. They will honor God in honoring Israel.

This is not merely a restoration. Zion’s glory is going to be enhanced. All the materials used for the first temple will be replaced with more precious materials for the new temple. Their bronze will be transmuted into gold, their iron into silver, wood into bronze, stone into iron (v. 17).

None of this is mythical; much of it lies in Israel’s near future. Earlier in his prophecy, Isaiah mentioned the name of Cyrus, the Persian king who sent Israel back from exile. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken them into exile, but the Persians eventually overthrew the Babylonians and liberated many of the nations that had been captured by the Babylonians. Israel is one of those nations. Cyrus sends the captives off with treasure, promises them protection, provides for them.

Even before Jesus came, Yahweh was shining His light on the nations. Gentiles kings became servants to the servants of God, priests to the priests of God. He intended to draw the nations in, and when we consider this passage and the history it refers to, we realize that He was accomplishing it. He was actually working out the salvation of nations in the history.

Throughout the passage, there is an ambiguity between the light that God Himself is and the light of Israel. It starts in the first verse: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” What is “your light”? Is it the light that Israel receives? Or the light that Israel is? It has at least to include the latter since the exhortation to Israel is to get up and “shine.” She is not only supposed to be the recipient of light; she is not only to be radiated upon. She receives light to radiate light. When the nations come to the light, they come to Yahweh’s light, the light that Yahweh is, but they are also coming to the light of Israel, the “brightness of your rising,” the brightness of Israel’s dawn, the radiance of the new day that has come upon Israel. Specifically, Israel will become radiant because of the joy she experiences when she sees the exiles return (v. 5). She sees the troops of nations and kings come, bearing her lost children, and her heart expands and her face shines.

In fact, there is a full circle here: Yahweh’s glory draws the nations by glorifying Israel; the nations bring their glory to Zion; and that glory adorns and glorifies Zion, which draws the glory because it is glorious; the glory shines out and draws more glory, and Zion’s life moves from glory to glory to glory to glory.

Yahweh’s light shines out to the nations, but it does so through the translucent people of God, and His sparkling city. Yahweh’s light reaches the nations because He makes that light, which is Himself, available through us, through His church. The church, the body of the Son who is the radiance of the Father’s glory, radiates the light that is the Son in the luminosity of the Spirit.

That’s all very stirring, perhaps a beautiful thought. But whatever could it mean? What does it mean for us to be God’s light in the world? How does the light of Jesus shine through us? It shines in our good works: “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said, “So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” His disciples are the true Zion, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. In context, Jesus is talking about our meekness, our hunger and thirst for justice, our mercy, our purity of heart, manifested in our quick efforts to reconcile with adversaries, our sexual fidelity, our truthfulness, our refusal to take vengeance, our alms-giving, prayer and fasting. All those are works through which the light of Jesus shines through us to the nations.

We radiate God’s light when we produce the fruits of the Spirit of light. Our love is light in the world. Our joy radiates into the darkness. Our peaceableness is luminous. We shine the light of Christ when we put on patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are light when we expose the darkness. We are light when we stand for justice and truth in the public square, at work, in our homes, in churches.

On the other hand, greed darkens the lamp of the body, which is the eye, and so makes our whole body full of darkness. Greed dims the light. If we worship Mammon, and fix our attention on gold and silver, we don’t receive the light that lightens us. We don’t radiate light when we put your light under a bushel, when we hide our works, when we become Pharisees who do good works only to our friends and not to strangers and enemies. We dim the light when we indulge in drunkenness, sexual immorality, strife, jealousy. If we hate our brothers, we are no longer light and are no longer walking in light.

Epiphany is a season of light. It celebrates the coming of Jesus as the light of the world, as the light of revelation to the Gentiles. But if we stop there, we don’t grasp what God is up to in His world. His purpose has always been not only to shine light into the world but to exalt us, His children, as children of light, as bright stars shining in the darkness, guiding the nations to the house where God dwells.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.